Patrick O’Brian

Desolation Island

Aubrey/Maturin Book 5

The idea of a twenty book series automatically puts me right off, mainly because of the way this has been so horribly abused in the fantasy genre. A trilogy doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but since it was a sublime thing in Lord of the Rings so many writers (and readers) seem to feel that if key thing about reflecting Tolkien is having the same hefty paper dimensions and triune structure. And then it gets worse: writers tack on book after book after the bloated trilogy as part of the same successful series rather than risking something original (Bova, Brooks, Feist, Goodkind, Jordan). It’s understandable – they sell better – people are more likely to buy something they’re familiar with. The first book may even have been good, but the carbon paper leaves an increasingly disappointing impression.

Not so with this series. Or, at least, not so far. I’m not enjoying Book 5 quite as much as the first couple, but that’s because they’re not as novel and because my expectations are higher. But despite this tough context, O’Brian still gets me in and impresses. Part of the joy is that he’s done so much research into an exciting time – the sort of fantastic events he evokes did happen to sailors in that time. Somehow he manages to bring out his fascination with that time. But there are added pleasures, such as shifting between narrators and styles, having Jack and Steven reveal their own strengths and weaknesses of perception in their own words. He also highlights the huge gamble taken with every voyage where one minute you may make your fortune, the next you’re lucky to escape with your life.

December 2009